Daniel Chester French was considered the “greatest monument sculptor in post-Civil War America”. His work left an indelible mark on America—most notably the Lincoln Memorial. Many of French’s works were created in the Berkshires at Chesterwood, French’s country retreat in Stockbridge, MA.
Connecting Point‘s Marla Zippay sat down with Chesterwood’s Former Executive Director, Donna Hassler, and Harold Holzer, author of Monument Man: The Life & Art of Daniel Chester French to learn about the man and his work.
This story originally aired on September 6, 2018.
Read the Full Transcript:
Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Daniel Chester French was considered the greatest monument sculptor in post-Civil War America.
His work left an indelible mark on America, most notably the Lincoln Memorial. Many of French’s works were created in the Berkshires at his country retreat Chesterwood and Connecting Points Marla Zippay visited the historic site to learn more about the man and his work.
Donna Hassler, Chesterwood: Chesterwood is the former home, studio, and gardens of Daniel Chester French. French is one of the most prominent American public sculptors in the United States.
He lived from 1850 to 1931, and he spent over 30 summers here at Chesterwood. He found the Berkshires because he was here visiting some friends who were also artists, when his wife came into the town of Stockbridge, she turned to her husband and said, I don’t know where you’re going to live, but I’m going to live in Stockbridge.
So, she was the one who actually determined this would be the place where they’d have their country retreat. French purchased this property, it was known as the Warner Farm in 1896, and started to develop and create his artists retreat here in the Berkshires.
Harold Holzer, Author: Daniel Chester French was a teenager in Concord, Massachusetts, and his father was a professional man, sent him to MIT where he promptly flunked out.
All the while, he was developing an interest in sculpting, and, you know, it’s very hard to trace the moment when that talent and that passion converge.
We don’t know whether it was a snow sculpture and a New England storm, or his first mound of clay that he successfully modeled into an animal figure and left on his father’s dinner plate to frighten them. Whatever it was, his father made sure he had an art education.
At a very young age, he had the good fortune to: A. Get a hugely important commission for the Minuteman in Concord, Massachusetts, and also to get the opportunity to study in Florence. And the statue was an extraordinary success, and out of this extraordinary first commission, his name was made.
I think French’s most important contribution is always the Lincoln Memorial. Not only was it the largest and the most colossal triumph of any sculptor in America, but it became over the decades a scene of aspiration and memory, and, of course, Martin Luther King Jr consecrated it for all time with the “I Have a Dream” speech in which he spoke about the monument, about Lincoln, about the emancipation.
So, the Lincoln remains a symbol of American hopes and dreams, always aspirational, not quite met. So he is the symbol of an America that still yearns to be a more perfect union.
Donna Hassler: French’s esthetic was all about creating beauty, both in his work, as well as in his surroundings. His daughter, Margaret French Cresson, grew up here and she watched her father model in the studio.
She reminisces about walking in the grounds with her father, learning about nature and developing a true love of Chesterwood.
She decided that she wanted to preserve Chesterwood for the community at large and the public to visit to learn about her father’s legacy, his important work of American sculpture, and eventually, she transferred the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1968.
It’s important to preserve houses like this, to understand especially an artist’s home and studio the nature of the creative process.
I think you have a better understanding coming to Chesterwood about the artist, his inspiration, and what his life was like during a certain time period in American history.
I often tell people, take some time to relax, enjoy the beautiful view of Monument Mountain, sit on the studio piazza, and take a moment for yourself.